Bone-dry palms that give way to stiff calluses. Ultra-short nails and shredded cuticles. Bandages locked down with superglue. A professional climber’s grip can’t just be strong, it has to be tough enough to withstand hold after hold while sustaining countless scrapes, gashes, cracks, and blisters along the way.
“Skin is so, so important,” says Sam Elias, a 32-year-old climber who has conquered M12+ and W16 winter routes and took second place at the 2010 Ouray Ice Climbing Competition. “When your skin is good, you don’t feel like you’re slipping as much. And more than anything, you can bear down on really small, sharp holds without pain taking your mind away and keeping you from trying as hard as you want to.”
For climbers, “good” means tough skin that’s dried out and sweat-free, with perfectly honed calluses. “Any moisture detracts from the friction against the rock, and soft skin has a tendency to rip or tear easily,” says Alex Johnson, 25, two-time World Cup gold medalist and the first woman to ascend a V12 in Colorado. “It’s pretty funny when you have a hot tub full of climbers, everyone sits with their hands sticking out of the water.”
It sounds simple, but there’s a fine line between skin that’s strong and skin that’s so thickened and parched it cracks and blisters. Whether you’re a climber or just plain hard on your hands, use these strategies and essentials from Elias and Johnson to start getting the most from your skin.
Keep It Clean
When dust and grit abound, cleanliness is crucial for preventing irritation and infection. “Some people will wash their hands multiple times throughout a climbing day to get the dirt, chalk, and aluminum from the gear off their hands and start fresh,” Elias says. “But wash them as quickly after climbing as possible.”
And for the inevitable scrapes and gashes: “I’ll immediately apply Neosporin,” Johnson says. Since Band-Aids and tape are tricky to keep on, climbers often add superglue. “Put it down the sides of your finger and then wrap the tape around so it’s glued to your skin. Works pretty well!” Post-climb, swap out bandages frequently: they’re a breeding ground for germs.
The alcohol-free formula uses antimicrobial saltwater and protective glycerin to leave skin clean—not tight and dry, not sticky and moisturized, just clean. Bonus: saline loosens mucous, so they’re perfect for excavating nasal passages.
For epically broken nails, this hard-patch kit beats bandages by a mile. Just dab a little of the non-stinging glue on the damaged area, dip it into the pot of microfine acrylic (think powdered fake nails), then smooth down the edges. It’ll stay clean and protect against additional damage from bumps and snags for about a week.
If you keep tabs on whether your hands tend to be dry or sweaty, and whether they’re more prone to cracking or shredding, you can pick the right products to dial skin in the right direction. “When I started climbing,” Elias says, “I used a lot of lotion, which I really shouldn’t do because my skin is wet and soft already.” The best way to determine what your skin needs—or doesn’t need—is to compare notes. “The most illuminating thing was talking with other climbers at the gym,” Elias says. “That’s really how I learned what good skin looks like.”
That said, the fastest way to derail good skin is to take it fast and furious with hardcore products. Case in point: Antihydral, an extra-strength, over-the-counter antiperspirant from Europe. Elias currently uses it once or twice a week on his palms and fingertips to shut down sweat glands and thicken skin, but it’s a regimen he spent years developing. “With Antihydral, your skin can easily crack—deep, deep cracks that take a long time to heal,” he says. No matter how far your skin has to go, consider extra-strength products a last resort or you risk taking yourself out of the game for a month of recovery.
The smartest approach to any new product is to start with a small amount applied just where you need it, and give it a week or two before ramping it up. For sweatiness, if pure climbing chalk isn’t cutting it, try one that’s formulated with an extra drying agent. For crack-prone skin, use a lightweight cream packed with plant oils like jojoba and sunflower, which absorb into skin and nourish instead of sitting on top and trapping moisture.
Magnesium carbonate, the go-to chalk for climbers, is suspended in alcohol to dry out moist skin. Magnesium hydroxide, also known as milk of magnesia, works as an antiperspirant to hold off new sweat. Apply this liquid chalk sparingly on finger pads and palms to avoid over drying.
The fast-and-light solution for dryness. Shea butter and avocado oil help skin retain the moisture it needs, while vitamin A from carrots and primrose oil penetrate deep to help maintain elasticity.
Repair and Prevent
Armor only goes so far if you don’t take care of what’s underneath. Muscle-recovery TLC is also good for skin, calming inflammation and jump-starting the healing process so new layers of skin come out strong. “I’ll soak my hands in a bucket of ice water, and then cover my hands, fingers, and joints in arnica lotion from one of my sponsors, Joshua Tree Skin Care,” Johnson says.
But since skin is constantly growing, it’s important to know when to say goodbye to some of those tough layers to prevent cracks and blisters. “If calluses build up too much, or if they’re not even, the thicker skin will tear the thinner skin next to it. So it’s important to file them so your skin isn’t pulling on itself.” Elias’s tool of choice: “Sandpaper. It sounds weird, I know.” Try a fine-grade one (at least 200 grit) to avoid taking off too much at once.
Johnson likes to use sandpaper to prevent peeling bits of skin from tearing deeper. “Sanding down those loose pieces with a small sheet of sandpaper will prevent them from getting stuck on a rock and pulling off, resulting in a deep, bloody flapper.” Though when it comes to the more delicate cuticle skin, skip the grit—as well as nail clippers, paper scissors, and your teeth—and use a pair of purpose-made scissors. Nothing else cuts as close or as clean.
Sore hands get a cool-down, thanks to the analgesic eucalyptus oil, antiseptic and antibacterial tea tree oil, and anti-inflammatory arnica in this lotion. Sunflower and coconut oils penetrate and nourish, while beeswax, cocoa butter, and shea butter seal and protect outer layers while they heal.
Once cuts, scrapes, and gashes are on the mend, this rich formula is tops for finishing the job. Glycerin draws moisture to prevent healing tissue from drying out, while a slew of plant oils smooth chapped skin.
These snips are the ultimate in precision, eliminating peeling skin and hangnails at the source. One caution: they’re perfect for eliminating snaggy skin around the rim of the nail, but don’t get carried away or you’ll leave the nail bed vulnerable to infection.
With ever changing factors like sun, wind, temperature, and humidity at play, the most meticulous skin prep can’t guarantee performance. “You learn that you can only do so much,” Elias says. “You stack the cards in your favor with your skincare, like you do with everything else, and you do the best you can.”
“My cuticles tend to split and bleed,” Johnson adds, “usually when I’m gripping a hold so small that it bends my knuckles back. There’s not much I can do to prevent that from happening, because I’m not going to stop trying hard. If you’re putting your time, effort and soul into something, it becomes expected to bleed at least a little.”
For many alpine climbers, expeditions are synonymous with suffering. You hang out in your tent for days, waiting out bad weather, hump heavy loads, and endure whipping winds, frostbite, and frigid temperatures. But for climber Mike Libecki, 41, who's put up first ascents from Greenland to Afghanistan, the harder the slog, the more joy it brings. "Without the mystery, there's no adventure," says Libecki, who when he's not scaling remote rock faces, he is a hands-on single father to his 11-year-old daughter, Lilliana. In November, the father-daughter team will head out on Lilliana's first expedition: a two-week skiing and SUPing adventure to Antarctica.
I caught up with Libecki by phone from his house near the mouth of Little Cottonwood Canyon, in Utah, to find out how he does it all—soccer coach, professional explorer, soloist, single parent, DIY backyard farmer. Appropriately, the conversation began with a muffled ruckus in the background and Mike apologizing, "Hold on one second. I have 11 animals here, pigs and chickens and dogs and cats. My parrot is battling off a couple of magpies." On that note....
OUTSIDE: How do you juggle it all? LIBECKI: It's all a choice. I really believe that the time is now. Dream big, climb those mountains. I want to look back on my deathbed and know I went for it. I want my daughter to grow up with animals. I want to keep it enthusiastic always. There's not much down time around here.
But practically speaking, is it difficult to manage your home life and being gone on expedition? I have a support crew that takes care of my animals when I travel. I've done over 50 expeditions now. Depending on the opportunities, I'm gone 4-5 months a year. I don't have family money. I work hard for what I get to do. What I do is what I love and what I love is what I do. I'm a single dad. When I'm not traveling, I'm a dedicated father. I work from home. I coached her competition soccer team for five years. My daughter's mom and I are really good friends. When I'm gone, she's with her mom and family. Her mother is the pillar of how I can do this stuff. Without her I'd be nothing.
How do you justify the risks of expedition climbing? There are inherent risks with anything. I look at expeditions and climbing and goals as a big mathematical equation. You make sure all constants are there, focus on the variables and the things you can't control, and everything is going to be fine. What I do is 100 percent safe. If I thought I was going to die, I wouldn't go. Half my trips are solo. I'm such an optimist. I'm not a summit-or-death guy. I've backed off a lot of summits when it's gotten too dangerous. Fear is my friend. It keeps me aware and focused on what I need to do.
But you've had some near misses? I've had quite a few close calls with rock fall, one in Afghanistan. I was underneath this big flake, the size of a garage door, as soon as I got away from it, not 15 minutes later, it fell. It cut two of my ropes in two places. That was a big moment. I was in tears. It was flashing through my eyes—what if I didn't come home? Yet I had tested the flake with my techniques, and nothing happened. I survived it.
How do you stay connected to home when you're on expedition? It is hard to leave. There's not a trip where the plane takes off over the ocean and I'm not tearing up and missing my daughter. I wondered how it would be after she was born, how it would affect with expedition life. It hasn't changed. The only change is that now I take the satellite phone. I can Skype from almost anywhere in the world. Every single week I've ever traveled, I've sent her flowers. When she was really young, I had stand-up cut-out photos of me made. Life is moving, we do what we do. She inspires me to go after what I love because I want her to do the same, to pursue what she really loves. Yet on the flip side, there are going to be compromises and sacrifices, moments of sadness and emotion. Anything great in life has sacrifices.
When did you first start taking Lilliana on trips and into the backcountry? Her first trip out of the country was to Thailand when she was eight months old. She's traveled around the world with me: Russian, Poland, France. She's grown up outdoors, appreciating nature. She started skiing when she was two. It seems pretty normal to us and to most people we know. Traveling the world is the best education you can get. As a parent, that's what I want to teach my daughter.
And this trip in November will be her first expedition? Yeah, but we're not taking a small sailboat to depths of insanity. We're going on a big boat to ski and paddle board, and to scientific stations to see the penguins. We trained last winter, practicing backcountry skills and skinning up. It's a stepping stone to who knows what she's going to do in the future. It's a safe, controlled 'expedition vacation.'
That sounds like something you feel you need to stress. The last time I was in Antarctica it was minus 40 with 80 mph winds. Some of the media I've done....well, you're going to get some haters. But it hasn't been about taking my daughter. It's more 'How can you go on your suicidal trips, and risk leaving your daughter fatherless?' This is joy and life is here to live.
How do you stay motivated during the long, tough expeditions? I just love it. I don't call it an 'expedition.' I call it an expe-addiction. You can't do these things if you don't love them. Without challenges it just wouldn't be worth it. There are two ways of living, in life and on expeditions: pre-joy or joy. Every single moment of your live you have joy. It could be pre-joy: 100 mph winds, rock fall that scares the crap out of you. It's still joy. Some people get annoyed with how optimistic I am. The only thing that really matters are if friends or family are sick, or if someone is hurt. That's when life gets really ultimate. Aside from that, it's pre-joy or joy.
Do you have tips for parents who want to pursue the adventure life? There's really no excuse for things you want to do and love to do. If you really love it and want it, the only things stopping you are excuses. How bad do you want it? If you really want it, don't drive a car with payments. Sell it and spend money on travel. Why ration passion? I just want [my daughter] to learn from me that you can really do anything you want if you really focus. It'll be mostly joy and a little bit of pre joy. And the pre-joy is so wonderful because you know it's going to end. On an expedition, you're freezing and suffering, and in that moment I just smile and embrace it because it's going to be over soon. It's just immaculate mayhem.
Pros are so lucky. They get to devote their lives to the sport they love, and completely focus on training and eating well. Wouldn't it be nice if we could all be so successful? Look—you can. It's not that laundry list of obligations holding you back from being an amazing athlete, and our 2014 Fittest Real Athletes are living proof. They're power players at home, in the office, and competing alongside the pros themselves. And they're nice enough to share how they do it all, so start taking notes.
Bona Fides Last year, Emge, an engineer at an oil and gas company in Tyler, Texas, won the 25–29 age group at the Ironman World Championships in Kona, Hawaii.
How He Does It Emge has always been a strong runner—he completed a one-hour 22-minute half marathon in college. After getting into triathlons in 2009, he steadily improved his multisport performance through committed training: 6 A.M. swims at the YMCA, lunchtime runs and strength training, and grueling evening bike rides. But when he missed qualifying for Kona by just ten seconds in 2012, he decided to ramp up his approach—especially on the bike, his weakest discipline. “Realizing I was that close to something most triathletes only dream of made me dedicate myself to making it the following year,” he says. Emge began riding with a friend who was also targeting Kona and was a strong cyclist but a slower runner. “He pushes me on the bike, and I push him on the run,” says Emge. “Having a partner makes it that much more bearable—and makes you faster and more competitive, too” He also does weekly group rides. “I would never have won my age group at Kona without those steps,” he says. “I’m not motivated enough to push myself to the limit.”
Follow His Lead Endurance coach Jesse Kropelnicki, who has guided several Ironman champions, strongly endorses working out with partners, particularly as a way to address weaknesses. But he cautions that doing so can result in overtraining. “If you’re working on improving one aspect of your sport, you need to decrease volume in others,” he says. “A triathlete who adds two hours a week of swimming needs to cut back on biking and running. Your body can only handle so much stress.”
Bona Fides In 2009, Benke, who lives in Connecticut and works in financial services on Wall Street, finished tenth place at the notorious Badwater Ultramarathon, a 135-mile race through California’s Death Valley. Last September, he completed the 153-mile Spartathlon in Greece in 28 hours and 29 minutes, earning him 13th place—the top American finish.
How He Does It Benke has a 90-minute commute and two small children. Finding the time to train takes discipline, which he developed at the U.S. Naval Academy and later as a Marine in the Iraq war. It also demands creativity. “I think part of the fun is making it all fit,” Benke says. He uses the seams in his schedule to train. He works from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m., “with no breaks,” but will often run eight miles from his lower Manhattan office to Harlem to catch a commuter train home. Usually, he does his longer runs on weekends. “Then, as soon as I get home, I’m taking my kids to birthday parties, giving them baths, and doing everything I can to pull my weight,” says Benke, who is currently training for November’s JFK 50 Mile race. “It helps that I really only need about six hours of sleep.”
Follow His Lead “If something is important to you, you’ll find time to do it,” says David Allen, author of Making It All Work: Winning at the Game of Work and the Business of Life. “And often it will benefit the other things in your life.” Pack your day, as Benke does, and you can’t afford to waste a single moment, which helps you focus. “If you’re with your kids all the time but looking at your phone constantly, that’s no different than not being there at all,” says Allen. It’s all about balance. “If one part of your life starts to suffer, it’s important to reevaluate and figure out what needs to change.”
Bona Fides In October 2013, Palmer, a Boston-based data analyst at creative agency Digitas, climbed Jaws II, a 70-foot Class 5.15a route at New Hampshire’s famed Waimea crags. He was the fourth person to scale Jaws and one of a small number of Americans to send a 5.15a climb.
How He Does It Palmer relies heavily on detailed goal setting, a habit he picked up in Richmond, Virginia, where he began climbing at 13, and honed as a student at Dartmouth College. These days he spends three nights a week at the climbing gym, training evenings from 8 to 10:30, always with a specific objective in mind. “I keep track of every workout,” he says. “If I’m not improving, I analyze variables like diet, sleep, and stress. If none of those things are to blame, I’ll take a different approach.” Almost every weekend, Palmer travels to Waimea—with a plan. “I’ll set a big goal, but start with smaller goals. When I was working on Jaws, I’d have a goal to make it a quarter of the way up, then halfway, then to just stay on the wall for a minute longer.”
Follow His Lead “He’s doing everything correctly,” says Edwin Locke, professor emeritus at the University of Maryland business school and author of New Developments in Goal Setting and Task Performance. “He has a distant goal, some proximate goals, a plan to reach his goals, and a way to evaluate his goals.” Locke especially likes that Palmer tracks his progress on paper. If you do that and still can’t figure out what’s hampering your headway, he suggests reach-ing out to an expert like a coach or boss for help. “And make sure that the goal is for you,” he says. “If it’s to impress somebody else, you’ll fail or get hurt, or when you reach the goal it will feel empty.”
Bona Fides Bankruptcy attorney Boone was the top woman and second-place overall finisher in the 2012 World’s Toughest Mudder, a 24-hour event that had competitors completing 300 obstacles over 90 miles. Last year, Boone won the Spartan World Championship, a 14-mile course with some 40 obstacles.
How She Does It During her interview for this story, Boone was rolling around on a lacrosse ball to smooth out some knots in her back. So goes training for a Chicago lawyer who occasionally puts in 80-hour workweeks at Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher and Flom, one of the country’s largest firms. Boone has become a master at getting fit while cranking out billable hours. “I’ll do phone calls as I walk home,” she says. “And I always tell people that a conference call is the best time to get in a ten-minute squat test.” Of course, she also has to find time for dedicated training sessions. She often wakes up at 4 A.M. to go for a run or work out at her local CrossFit gym. If her ever changing work schedule allows, she plans to tackle at least 20 obstacle races across the country this year—up from 12 in 2013. “I always make sure my travel bookings are refundable,” she says.
Follow Her Lead Art Markman, a psychology professor at the University of Texas at Austin, says you can get away with Boone’s brand of aggressive multitasking if the exercises you’re doing feel habitual. “You can easily complete a task that you don’t need to think about, like walking or brushing your teeth, while also having a conversation,” Markman says. Plus, “exercise is really good cognitively,” he says. “It releases dopamine, which is associated with focused attention.” But things get tricky when you try to accomplish multiple tasks that tax your brain, like shopping online while talking to someone. “Your brain will shift back and forth between the two tasks,” he cautions, “and you’ll become inefficient at both.”
Bona Fides Since launching the real estate website Trulia in 2005, Silicon Valley resident Inkinen has climbed to the top of the amateur triathlon ranks. He’s a two-time overall amateur champion at the highly competitive Wildflower Triathlon, near Paso Robles, California, and was the 2011 world cham-pion in the 70.3 distance for the 30–39 age group. In June, Inkinen and his wife began their attempt to row a 5-by-20-foot boat from San Francisco to Hawaii.
How He Does It Though his company is now well established, Finland native Inkinen still keeps a startup schedule, regularly putting in 70-hour weeks. So how does he maintain elite-level endurance fitness? “Really intense hour-long workouts,” he says. Inkinen will bust out ten intervals of minute-long sprints on a treadmill or stationary bike followed by a minute of jogging or spinning, then jump in the pool and swim 100-yard sprints. “It’s all the time I can afford,” he says. But the most dramatic improvement in his racing came when he rebooted his nutrition plan. Disillusioned with a low-fat, high-carb diet that left him constantly hungry and caused his weight to fluctuate dramatically, Inkinen experimented with different foods, ultimately adopting a high-fat diet made up of ingredients like olive oil, macadamia nuts, and avocados. “After a few months, I started becoming healthier and performing better,” he says.
Follow His Lead According to Dina Griffin, a sports dietitian at Fuel4mance, which counsels elite athletes on nutrition, there are four key signs that you might be ingesting too many carbs: you frequently bonk, you’re hungry all the time, your stomach hurts, and you’re not recovering well from workouts. “We’re seeing that most athletes—from weekend amateurs to serious professionals—perform better with moderate carbohydrate intake,” she says. “If you eat pasta every night, cut back to once or twice a week and see if you notice a difference.”
It was an hour before dawn. We were scrambling in the dark, on hands and feet, our headlamps dimly lighting the dusty, crumbling rock in front of us; our metal crampons slipping on stone. I was second on our rope string behind our friend, an experienced Everest climber. Behind me was our 14-year-old son, Skyler; our 17-year-old daughter, Molly; and my husband, Peter. We'd made it to what is known as the Cleaver. Our Missoula neighbor, an emergency room doc and search-and-rescue team member, had grinned knowingly as we packed our car on our way to Mount Rainier. "Say hi to the Cleaver," he said forbiddingly.
I grew up looking across Puget Sound at the white hulk of Mount Rainier, that primordial volcano that stands like a king among mountains in western Washington and that just claimed six lives, racking up a total of 95 during the past 117 years. My father reached its summit at age 18, in 1929. He claimed to have done it "with a little jute and tennis shoes." But I knew his nonchalance belied the size of the feat, and that, in fact, it had meant a lot to him. It had been a sort of coming-of-age test.
One summer, Peter, standing on the deck of our Puget Sound cabin, was looking for an exciting challenge for young and active Skyler while Molly and I were off on a trip. He gazed across the water at the white hulk. "What about that?" he said. "Let's climb Mount Rainier."
Enter the risk assessment. Although Peter is not an ice and snow mountaineer or a technical rock climber, he has done lots of planning for trips into the wilderness. With approximately 11,000 people climbing Mount Rainier each year, the mountain is hardly a wilderness, at least not if you define wilderness as a place without people. But it has the unpredictability of wilderness in spades.
Luckily for us, we know several highly experienced mountaineers, including a veteran Everest climber who was willing to let us tag along. We would be climbing in July and taking the most standard route: Camp Muir to Ingraham Glacier to Disappointment Cleaver to the summit. Of course, 11 climbers died on Ingraham Glacier in 1981, so we weren't taking anything for granted.
Come July, we hucked our 50-pound packs onto our backs in the parking lot of Paradise Inn and eagerly greeted the motley crew who would be our climbing companions: a preschool teacher from England with her party-time-all-the-time childhood girlfriend; a laconic East Indian computer tech guy from Virginia, back for a second try at the summit; another Brit, jovial and grizzled, who'd been a mountaineering guide on Mount Kenya; a boy we'd known since he was born, now in his 20s, with his fiance, both avid converts to CrossFit; and some enthusiastic Seattle friends of ours with their 15-year-old son, Max, and 11-year-old daughter, Flannery. (Less excited by the prospect of a lugging a pack 9,000 feet up the side of a mountain, she would return with her mom to the parking lot after the first night.)
The plan was to camp two nights at Nisqually Glacier at 9,200 feet, where we'd acclimatize and practice self-arrests with our ice axes. Then we'd climb to Camp Muir at 10,000 feet, spend a day practicing crevasse rescues, try to sleep for a few hours, and begin the standard ascent to the 14,410-foot summit in the middle of the following night. We were being conservative, taking it slow.
Now, after all of our preparation and nights at lower elevations, the summit climb was on. It was 10 p.m., time to wake up, assuming we'd actually gone to sleep. We quietly crept out of our tent at Camp Muir and began the meticulous process of donning helmets, headlamps, and climbing harnesses and strapping on safety lines, carabiners, crampons, and ice axes. Our hands were already cold. Our eyes strained in the dark. Other hushed climbers rustled in their tents, which were lighting up like Japanese lanterns. The kids were excited. Our rope line was the first to clip in and step out onto Cowlitz Glacier. Crisp snow crunched underfoot. We looked back. Other strings, like glittering diamond necklaces, were stretching out behind us.
We reached the first ridge of rock, jutting out of the mountainside like a stiff mohawk. Crampons perfectly designed to grip snow were less than ideal on loose, volcanic rock. Dust stung our eyes. Our children, unperturbed, chatted with Max on the rope behind about the Dark Knight until our lead climber told them to be quiet and focus. We stopped so I could adjust my crampons. I took off a mitten and laid it on the rock.
"Don't ever do that!" our normally laid-back leader admonished. "It could be the difference between life and death to lose a glove." I snatched up my mitten and stuffed it into my jacket. I'd never heard him so clipped.
We slid down onto Ingraham Glacier, where the silk cocoons of tents at a distant camp were beginning to light up.
"Stop until I tell you to come," our leader said to me. "Okay, jump."
I felt a tug at my harness and jumped as far as I could across the yawning crack of a crevasse, my headlamp catching a drop into blackness, my back foot just dragging over its lip. I pulled in the slack in our rope and turned and did the same for Skyler.
"Whoa, that was huge!" he said, easily making it to the other side but clearly impressed.
Seven hours after our departure from Muir, our lungs grasping at ever-thinning wisps of air, we crawled through the dark, pulling ourselves over boulders by our hands, ice axes banging against rock, headlamps slipping. We made it to the top of the Cleaver. Another long, vertical ridge of rock, the Cleaver's sides dropped away into darkness—we'd find out just how far on the return trip in the daylight. We stopped to take a rest, drink one of our canteens of water, dig out gorp and Power Bars. Our kids were tired, cold, silent. A thin orange line of predawn light appeared in a curve on the horizon, separating the edge of our planet from space. A rumble sounded, throaty and deep. The great mountain twitched and shed its skin of rock and ice.
I'd always heard this route up Rainier was not particularly technical, just a long walk. But it was becoming clear this was the air-sucking, glute-gripping, muscle-sapping, energy-draining variety of walk. This was the variety of walk that begins to test one's determination and perseverance. While it had its share of adrenaline-pumping excitement in the beginning, by the end it just demanded grit.
When I was 12, my father suggested I swim the mile and a half from the mainland to the island in Puget Sound where we had a cabin. After calculating the tide, we set out from the island one morning to row across in our little wooden boat. Reaching the other side an hour later, I climbed out. With a wetsuit top and legs slathered in Crisco, I waded into the 60-degree water. The swim home felt long and cold, and I wondered what was lurking in the 200-foot depths. I felt small and vulnerable. But I as I stumbled out onto the beach on the other side, I was exhilarated that I had made it, and that triumph has fed into my overall confidence.
Despite the fact that many jobs no longer require physical prowess, physical confidence still plays an important part in our children's feelings that they can cope in a sometimes-threatening world. Physical confidence is one more bolster against vulnerability. Likewise, there's a place for facing a big test, physical or not. I've wished my children had something like the demands of a bar or bat mitzvah, where they'd have to prepare for a year to speak before their family's adult community. Our kids need some of these tests along the way to reassure them that they'll be able to rise to life's challenges, as unpredictable and varied as they will be.
Five hours later, in the early morning sunlight, my kids and Max stood on top of Mount Rainier. They were elated and tired, and they knew the day was not yet over. But it was good. That night, at 10:00, after a full 24 hours of nonstop climbing and descent, they stumbled through a thick fog into the Paradise parking lot. They had tackled something really big—that unpredictable, sometimes irascible king of mountains.
Now they look across the water, see the volcano's crest, and say, "We were there."
Americans are in love with the 10,000-hour rule. First proposed in 1993 by Florida State University psychology professor Dr. K. Anders Ericsson, the rule held that it takes 10,000 hours of deliberate practice to become an expert in just about anything, from violin-playing to typing to sports. (“Deliberate practice” meaning participation in structured activities meant to optimize performance in a specific domain.)
Journalist Malcom Gladwell popularized the theory in Outliers, a case study of successful people and how they got that way, including Bill Gates and Mozart. The bestseller was published just two weeks after Obama won the 2008 presidential election with a strong message that Americans can do whatever they set their minds to, something akin to Walt Disney’s "If you dream it, you can do it." That ubiquitous inspirational poster quote might as well be our national motto. The 10,000-hour rule was made for our optimistic nation of self-improvers. Unfortunately, science doesn’t care.
A new study from Princeton researcher, Brooke Macnamara, and her colleagues declares that golden 10,000-hour rule is, in fact, a myth. Their meta-analysis of 88 deliberate practice studies suggests that “the amount of practice accumulated over time does not seem to play a huge role in accounting for individual differences in skill or performance in domains including music, games, sports, professions and education,” Princeton University writes. In music, deliberate practice accounts for a 21 percent difference in individual performance; in sports, the researchers conclude, it accounts for just 18 percent.
The scientists behind this new study aren’t saying training is pointless—eighteen percent is the difference between a four-hour marathon and a 3:17, after all. (A huge accomplishment, but still not an Olympics-worthy run.) They’re just saying that training volume, measured in time, is not a great indicator of performance. In other words, that American dream of training your way to the top isn’t always possible. “Deliberate practice is important,” the researchers wrote, “but not as important as has been argued.”
That shouldn’t faze athletes. We’ve always known that the 10,000-hour rule was a fairytale, even if we didn’t want to admit it. We’ve been neck-deep in the nature versus nurture debate for decades, talking about Jamaican sprinters and East African distance runners and their apparent genetic predisposition toward greatness in their respective fields. We know 10,000 hours of training, or 20 hours per week for 50 weeks a year for 10 years, may improve our performance, but it doesn’t guarantee that we’ll beat Usain Bolt in a 100-meter race.
So scientists took away our prescription for peak achievement while they work on writing a new one. (The age at which an athlete picks up a sport may play a large role in performance, as might certain cognitive abilities, such as working memory, Princeton writes.) But we still love the idea that the more we try, the closer we’ll get to glory. It’s part of our American culture, not just in sports, but in everything we do. The 10,000-hour rule just isn’t realistic, and that should be a liberating revelation: 20-hour training weeks may not be necessary to dominate at whatever we’re doing.
So keep training. You may not become an expert (or as we say in sports, a pro), but you’ll be a better athlete for it—even if you never hit 10,000 hours of training.